Cork’s decline takes a bright star from GAA firmament

Struggle of one of the strongest counties bad for the GAA – and for Irish sport

Jimmy Barry Murphy in action against Galway in the 1986 All-Ireland final. He epitomised the traditional style and confidence of Cork teams. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho Billy Stickland

Jimmy Barry Murphy in action against Galway in the 1986 All-Ireland final. He epitomised the traditional style and confidence of Cork teams. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho Billy Stickland

 

There is steel in Cork. There is flint and the spark of fire. I would not, I repeat, be born out of it.

– Séan Ó Faoláin.

Everyone seems to be missing something. If Cork slip into the ordinary; if the Rebels surrender and accept that they are just another GAA county, then who are the rest of us supposed to give out about?

If Cork can lose a grip on what for over a century has seemed like an ineradicable celebratory glee at being Cork; if they can, as a people, relinquish their irrepressible, magical conviction that hailing from Cork, that happening to be born there means that they’re just – not that they’d say this out loud or mean any disrespect by it but – you know, just that bit better.

If, in short, the jaunty elixir of Cork-ness leaks out of their GAA teams, then won’t Ireland in general be flying on three engines?

The GAA is a masterful entity when it comes to the concocting and solving – by way of comm-mitt-tee – crises of all sorts.

But there has been general passivity (and maybe, from old foes, quiet satisfaction) at the notable absence of Cork hurling and football teams from recent All-Ireland conversations. The big red republic is in decline and nobody is shouting ‘Stop, Ya Langer’.

It’s not simply the results – the mundane accounting of February and March national league press boxes – that should be of national concern. What’s at stake here is more elusive and important.

The former Cork hurler Pat Mulcahy touched on it in wonderfully defiant remarks published in the Irish Examiner this week. They really should have just printed a two-finger salute to the world above the article rather than the traditional headline because here, at least, the old Cork fire was alive.

“It’s the spirit we need to mend,” Mulcahy said in a series of observations which were at once shamanic and acute. “When I talk about the spirit, I’m not talking about the team but the spirit around the county.”

Mulcahy is on to something here.

Looking in from afar, it seemed for decades Cork could, when required, summon a kind of inner belief and spirit that their teams and supporters would sort of shape-shift according to the magnitude of the occasion.

Never fazed

They possessed a sense of self that made them more difficult to beat. Where did that come from? The heritage is the obvious answer, from Jack Lynch to Ring to JBM to Corcoran . But it was there too when Ring was a young man and all those All-Irelands lay ahead of them; it was always there.

Cork GAA teams have traits that pass through the decades; prone to impulsive mood swings, always playing it clean and if a team folded against them, then they’d stitch it in for fun.

As an institution, Cork GAA did things its own way and that way was old-school with a strict hierarchy. They ran a no-frills show and got maximum return from generations of players.

Cork teams never seemed fazed or overwhelmed by Croke Park, capable of landing into Heuston on the morning of an All-Ireland, dodging up to Croke Park to take care of business and then tearing back down to Kent Station with an hour left before last orders.

If the dressing-rooms in Páirc Uí Chaoimh were, in the end, a scandal, if the tunnel was scary on championship days, then the old place was still about as charismatic as any sports arena in the world.

Maybe Cork GAA got caught in a kind of time warp towards the turn of the millennium. The players’ strike of 2009 did, of course, mark a sundering of two distinct schools of thought. The squads of that time agitated for better conditions and took on an administrative tradition which could point to a gilded list of historical accomplishment as proof that the old ways worked just fine.

The strike was a radical step by the players, driven by an honest conviction that they needed improved conditions in order to compete with other counties. It felt during that time that the traditional wing of Cork GAA could just about contain its contempt for the demands; could just about suppress the urge to shout: ‘if it was good enough for Teddy McCarthy, then it should be good enough for you’.

It has always felt, too, as if Cork never fully resolved the tensions or issues raised in that strike and have been in response-mode ever since. It’s hard to suspect that if Cork GAA splashed out on an expensive state-of-the-nation report delivered by PWC, the main conclusion would be that Cork has lost its voodoo.

A cloud

No senior All-Ireland has been won since 2005 in hurling and 2010 in football: neither gap constitutes a crisis but there seems to be a general acceptance that Cork are moving further away rather than closer to success.

However, simply hammering the current management or the squads is both unfair and pointless. You can bet that everyone involved is trying their damnedest and are completely committed to their cause; if they weren’t, they simply wouldn’t be able to compete at all.

The truth is that they are operating under a cloud. For what seems to be ailing Cork just now is a new sense of acceptance which, for all outsiders looking in, is profoundly unsettling.

The Cork writer Séan Ó’Faoláin owns (arguably) the best ever title for an Irish memoir: Vive Moi! On the grandest days and nights for Cork GAA– the September celebrations on crisp Monday evenings on the Grand Parade – it seemed as if that title should become the motto for Cork as a whole; that it perfectly summed up the sense of jubilation coursing through the veins of every man, woman and child of that county.

And the thing about Cork is, they don’t simply have to uphold this malarkey when it comes to the GAA. Cork rugby is an entirely separate story. Cork athletics has a tradition of walking tall. Arguably the most impressive and least mentioned aspect of Cork sports is the indoor, winter game of basketball and local gods like Seanie Murphy.

They have a jazz festival to run, a rich literary tradition to uphold, an insane lexicon of local slang to nurture, an antic pop music reputation as well as the most complex traffic system in the Northern Hemisphere. No wonder they take their eye off the small ball every so often.

But: things fall apart. Dublin football fans had to wait for 30 years for a true revival of the romanticised feud with Kerry. Tipperary hurling people still recall 1971-1987 with a shiver.

And who in Eyre Square, on the evening of the 1988 hurling homecoming would have believed you if you told them then that there would be nothing more until now?

A Cork disappearance from the conversation would not be a good for the GAA or for Ireland in general. Sport is a diversion from the trials of real life. Anyone reading or listening over the last few days can’t but conclude that Ireland has a dark old heart. The GAA, as the last remaining pillar, has its faults and an historical violent streak of its own. But its games, its best players and its characters shone a light on the best of us too. Cork provided those in spades. They cannot let that spark go out.

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